Big 12 NCAA Football Media Day

Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb speaks to the media on the first day of Big 12 NCAA college football media days Monday, July 15, 2019, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/David Kent)

ARLINGTON, Texas — CeeDee Lamb didn’t have to absorb the criticism thrown at Oklahoma’s defense last season. But he did anyway.

When the insults rained down on a unit that ranked among the Power 5’s worst in 2018, Lamb felt them — even though the receiver was part of the Sooners’ high-powered offense that virtually received constant praise.

“It’s actually disrespectful to us as well,” Lamb said. “People keep saying, ‘Ya’ll gotta put up 60 points or ya’ll gonna lose.’ Stuff like that.”

The Sooners never finger-pointed, Lamb claims. Even when opposing numbers piled up, team unity prevailed.

If OU has its way there will be no reason for the blame game this fall.

Lincoln Riley said Monday at Big 12 football media days he expects a much improved defense after major changes in staffing and system this offseason. Alex Grinch’s takeover as coordinator and the energy his turnover-driven philosophy are driving those hopes.

By now, Riley is a veteran at maneuvering through the league’s season-opening media event. But for the third consecutive season he answered unwavering questions about struggling defense.

Those questions aren’t getting easier to answer. 

The Sooners are antsy to unveil a new era and dispel the notion they’re only capable of scoring points, not limiting them. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby tried to help out during his address, noting that 6 of 7 league teams held their bowl opponents below their season averages last season.

He was correct: The Sooners held Alabama to 45 points in the Orange Bowl, two below its average.

“You want it to happen overnight,” Riley said, “and it’s impossible for it to happen overnight because it involves everything that those defensive players and coaches do — involves how they play, how they work. It involves how they interact with each other, how they lift in the weight room. There are accountability, off-the-field things. I mean it takes everything.

“If you’ve got any loose ends or any cracks it’s going to show up.”

That’s true in a league dominated by offenses. Even reminded that OU won the Big 12 in 2015 with the league’s best scoring defense, then with the league’s worst a year ago, Riley emphasized that a stronger defensive culture is imperative

As successful as he’s been in the head role, the 35-year-old coach is beginning to field questions about what it will take to get the Sooners into a national championship game. Uneven play has largely cost them in recent College Football Playoff games.

“We haven’t played complete enough in those semifinal games. Not necessarily one side of the ball or the other. We haven’t played a complete enough game to beat a top-4 team in the country,” Riley said. “We’ve been really close and we’ve had some stretches in all the semifinal games where we’ve played some good ball. Obviously you try to get your team as good as you can where your margin for error is a little bit lower, then you try to play your very best game there.”

More talented defensive recruits, better coaching and a different scheme are a few tactics OU’s banking on to lower that margin this fall. The Sooners even brought the league’s preseason defensive player of the year to Arlington in linebacker Kenneth Murray, perhaps a positive omen. 

“At some point they’re gonna have to stop them. It can’t just be touchdowns,” Lamb said. “If that’s the case, it’ll be like basketball, like 100 to 107. Something has to give.

“But they’re disrespecting our defense, and at some point things are gonna click. This year I think they’re gonna turn around.”

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